Dear Archaeologists and Egyptologists who I have known and contacted over the years,
I recently wrote to many of you to ask if you had any photos of your Qurnawi workers you could send for an exhibition I was putting together for Qurna Discovery.
Sadly Qurna Discovery no longer exists - the buildings were demolished in mid May. So I will no longer need any photos.
Below is a mail I sent to Friends of Qurna Discovery 10 days ago, and attached is the paper I gave at a conference in London.
As you were not at the conference, it is only fair that you are able to read what I said. You will see that the paper is very critical of what has happened over the last years. I hope none of you will be deeply offended, but I do hope it will spark debate within your circle..
I also hope that some of you will see the value of an Oral History project even at this late date, and will look for ways this could be moved ahead.
Coordinator, Qurna History Project
A conference in London from 10-12 June 2010, and jointly sponsored by:
• The Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS) of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
• The Egypt Exploration Society.
• The University College London Institute of Archaeology Heritage Studies Research Group.
A paper given in the Panel called :Egyptian and Arab perceptions, by Caroline Simpson (Qurna History Project)
I am not going to describe the slides – it should be obvious from the text. There will be individual ones as and when… and groups as described here in red.
The pathological condition of hypermetropia is where the sufferers are only able to focus properly on distant objects and unable to see those close to them with any clarity. In the past this was a common condition in the archaeology and heritage disciplines in most countries, but is still rampant in Egypt. It is prevalent in many locations, but is most clearly defined in Luxor, west and east - the ancient Thebes. As people working on Egypt’s superb monuments and antiquities became more highly trained and specialised, the hypermetropia worsened, and the focus became solely on the ancient. Despite advice from international organisations, and colleagues working in less afflicted countries, the conditioned worsened so much that it was felt necessary for near objects to be removed in order to create an uncluttered and sterile foreground for the distant objects. I am delighted to give this paper which I hope will give a greater knowledge of recent advances and events.
The Theban west bank, known as the Necropolis, was never just a place for dead people. The tombs and temples required labourers and craftspeople who lived locally with their families. The temples also required human resources in the same way as any cathedral precinct does today. In the Coptic period there was a fully functioning small town at Jeme in the ruins of the Habu temple, and many monasteries on the hillside whose inhabitants required food and other services. There is a fertile stretch of land, well watered by the inundation, and it is highly unlikely that the area was unpopulated at any time.
In more recent history, 18th century and early 19th century European, short-stay travellers to Thebes, while they recorded their visits to the monuments also recounted stories of local inhabitants. Taking their name from the cluster of dispersed hamlets that make up the village of Qurna, they are generally know as Qurnawi. Most of these early accounts show the Qurnawi in a bad light, something which has persisted to the present day. I have argued elsewhere that this bad reputation is largely explained by a lack of understanding of local social and economic habits coupled with an inability to speak the local language. Pococke’s map of 1743 shows the village of Qurna by Seti I temple. Denon in 1798/9 writes of large groups of people living in the saff tombs in Tarif, and a village around Seti temple – people who take to the hills for refuge when attacked. The early 19th century European fashion for collecting ancient Egyptian antiquities led many of the Qurnawi to move closer to their new work and settle permanently in and around the hillside tombs. The Europeans who came and stayed working in Qurna built substantial free-standing buildings – a habit that was then copied by the Qurnawi. Over the last 200 years a modern built fabric joined what remained of the earlier pharaonic and Coptic built heritage.
The next group of photos documents the recent history of this cultural heritage. The narrative is mainly from UNESCO, from which I will quote at length, firstly because they say it far better than I can, and secondly these documents should be more widely known.
While this is being read I rapidly show a collection of slides of the demolitions.
Thebes and its Necropolis was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979. There have been examinations of the state of conservation by the World Heritage Committee and its Bureau in 1997, 98, 2001, 2006, and 7 and 8. The 2008 Report summarises: “ Its related decisions addressed notably the issues of the lack of a management plan, the possible conflict between conservation requirements and safeguarding of socio-cultural character of the local community, notably the destruction of Gurnah foreseen for some decades and the displacement of its inhabitants, that finally took place in 2006, without the geological, archaeological and geographical surveys and mapping, anthropological studies, assessment of the historical and cultural landscape qualities of the foothills and of the presence of Gurnah in the site requested by the World Heritage Bureau in 1997 and 1998.”
ICOMOS, in its review of the 2006 mission report stated: “The demolition of …. substantial parts of Gurnah (is) neither (an) acceptable approach within contemporary conservation theory (which demands that changes be limited to only those essential to meet critical functional needs, and here, only where this can be done without loss to heritage values), nor respectful of the property’s Outstanding Universal Value. Even if some of these places are not what would be described as “antiquities”, they should be protected as being indissociably connected to the development of the site, and therefore worthy of the strongest protection efforts. In particular, the loss of Gurnah, whose residents have provided the bulk of the excavation effort at Thebes from the 19th century forward, would involve loss of a place of great importance within the original nomination. Removal of the population of Gurnah, and reduction of the village to a few surviving designated (and empty) historic buildings is an act which goes against all the principles of conservation.”
The World Heritage Centre mission of April-May 2007 noticed: “A large number of the houses of Gurnah were destroyed without any historic or ethnographic survey and the inhabitants moved to a new village to the South” and the 2007 Decision of the World Heritage Committee (31 COM 7B.55) was: “to institute a moratorium on any further demolition at Gurnah and relocation of its population until such time as the studies and impact assessments initially requested are carried out.”
In April 2008 a Joint World Heritage Centre/ICOMOS Reactive Monitoring Mission was sent to Thebes and their report states: “The demolition and gradual eradication of the villages of Gurnah is another plan that is damaging the authenticity of the site and threatening part of the Outstanding Universal Value that led to the original inscription of the property as a World Heritage Site.” And finally in its presentation to the World Heritage Committee 32nd session in Quebec July 2008 the mission reported their visit of April: “The demolition of Gurnah is being systematically carried out despite persistent expert advice calling for the preservation of these traditional villages. Another request that has been ignored is the carrying out of geological, archaeological and geographical surveys and mapping, anthropological studies, assessment of the historical and cultural landscape qualities of the foothills and of the presence of Gurnah in the site, requested by the World Heritage Bureau already in 1997 and 1998, before any further action is taken.
Admittedly, the living conditions in many of the houses are primitive to say the least, and their inhabitants deserve a better life. Also, it is clear that in some cases the inhabitants are damaging the ancient remains. All-out, mass demolition, however, is not the answer – especially when the houses of Gurnah have been part of the archaeological landscape ever since investigations in the West Bank began, and form an inseparable part of the values of the property.
The argument, expressed by local authorities, that the houses must be demolished in order to investigate the tombs lying underneath, is not convincing. Many of the houses of Gurnah are prime examples of traditional Egyptian architecture. Destroying the houses and the historic landscape goes against fundamental principles of conservation. In any case, the tombs already excavated are perhaps more than the authorities can protect and preserve, and no urgency appears to excavate more – at least for the time being.
Recommendation: The demolition of Gurnah should be stopped. A proper Management Plan should integrate the remaining sections of the villages – not just single houses – into the archaeological park. The serious issue of relocating the population is something that should have been studied and analysed by experts in these matters. The need to excavate more tombs in the immediate future should be carefully studied and justified.”
While narrating this I show slides which illustrate the story…..
While the mighty UNESCO was trying to influence from the top, I was trying to save at the bottom. Both efforts were fruitless and extremely frustrating. Having failed (with exhibitions, discussions and papers over many years) to get the authorities in Qurna to respect Qurnawi culture in general, I tried in February 2007 to save a very specific small group of buildings. On Sheikh Abd el-Qurna they stood close above the famous tomb of Nakht. There was a superb collection of domestic earthen structures in and outside a tomb, a family zawyeh (communal guest and meeting room) built just over 100 years ago, the much damaged Yanni House of c.1820 (the first free standing post Coptic house on the hills) and the traditional family house of the Daramallis. These properties formed a distinct group and together could tell the whole story of habitation on the hillside over the last 250 years or so. Permission was obtained from the head of Luxor SCA for these to be retained so that we could restore them and display existing and new displays about Qurnawi history. We did the restoration work, obtained formal written permission from the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr Hawass, and reopened the exhibitions in the zawyeh. Following a tricky period of further negotiations we got final permission from the Minister for Culture, Farouk Hosni and a restatement of his support from Dr Hawass in November 2008. The Minister wrote: “I greatly appreciate all that you have done and continue to do for the preservation of the culture of this remarkable place.” …………. On March 25th 2009 the bulldozers returned to this part of the world heritage site and demolished the Yanni House. On April 4th the destroyers returned and demolished the mud structures. We were assured that the two remaining buildings would indeed remain. Notwithstanding his earlier written permissions, Dr Hawass wrote to me on the 5th of May this year to state that he was sending a committee (which was never seen on site) to judge whether they should be demolished, and a reason for the possible destruction was: “tomb of Nakht must be protected.” Four weeks ago, on May 16th a final bulldozer attack demolished the zawyeh and the Daramalli House. Not only were bulldozers and heavy machines used in the demolitions but they have been very busy moving the debris around the area of the tomb of Nakht ever since. The authorities have plans for the demolition of the three Qurna mosques – after that the cultural genocide will be complete: irrepairable damage to the archaeological infrastructure and the death of a living community in a traditional vernacular cultural landscape that formed equally a part of the archaeological stratigraphy.
Let us look back a while at what we have indeed lost.
For this para’ I run through a selection of photos of standing Qurna (taken 1996 -2009) – various places and types of buildings
We have lost the buildings and the outbuildings in one of the best preserved examples of a mud brick settlement, almost entirely traditional in its use of materials and techniques – apart from a few notable and lamentable exceptions. There were large and small family houses and groups of houses, many zawyeh, a number of domed sheikh shrines.
For this para’ a selection of other mud things.
We have lost the wide range of earthen structures which were so much a feature of this Upper Egyptian culture. The exhibition on the Earthen Structures of Qurna - which you should be able to view tomorrow at SOAS - tells just part of their story – but here are some further examples.
Next two paras slides show Qurnawi – working, in houses, look at my baby goat etc
We have lost a community which had a very special relationship with the monuments on which they worked and lived, and with the tourists who they hosted and served. It was also a community with a very special and spiritual relationship to the Theban hills.
We have lost part of what made the west bank a joy to visit, the local people who greeted, entertained and served their foreign visitors. It was the life of the people with their goats, chickens and donkeys, men busy carving and women making sun bread, that made the ancient lives depicted on the tombs come vividly to life. Many visitors said that this was the highlight of their visit to Egypt, the day they would most remember.
Apart from Winlock and Crum who excavated a Coptic monastery on Sheikh Abd el-Qurna in 1912-14, virtually no archaeologists until very recently have considered either the Coptic or the later structures to be worthy of proper excavation and record. The Monastery at Deir el-Bahari was demolished to clear the way for pharaonic excavation, as were the churches and the town of Jeme. Where post Roman levels have been excavated at all almost no proper reports have been written – many of the notes for Jeme were destroyed in the Second World War and Dr Stadelman has been unable to find the money to pay for the post excavation work on Seti temple courtyard where we know that a Coptic church, if nothing else, was recorded. There is no recognised chronological data for the last 1200 years of local ceramics, because no-one has worked on it.
An architect and planner, Diaa el-Din, faithfully recorded some of the house plans as part of the excellent survey work for the1992 relocation plans which were for a socially respectful new settlement that never happened. These have never been published but hopefully still exist somewhere in his office drawers in Cairo
A couple of French students on a foreign holiday assignment did some studies in 2007.
Luckily the anthropologist Kees van der Spek (from the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia) did his doctorate on the lives and work of one part of the Horubat community of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna. With its wide ranging historical research and in depth 1997/8 study of this small group, this stands as the prime work on Qurna and the Qurnawi. It will be published by the AUC Press later this year or early 2011.
But where is the post Roman information from the many hundreds of excavations and studies by archaeologists over recent decades? Minimal for the Coptic period and almost non-existent for the last millennia. While having no vision for or interest in their local contemporary surroundings, many have called for greater care of the monuments and continued to criticise, mainly unjustifiably, the indigenous community who lived outside the gates of their mission compounds, whose male members act as their servants and labourers.
Care of the monuments? Not only has a more modern culture been obliterated but it has been done, not with pick axes and shovels wielded by many otherwise unemployed young men, but by heavy machines. In recent years, when these heavy machines have trundled back and forth over the fragile stone of the Theban Hills, beneath which lay countless numbers of unknown tombs, where were the linked arms of the archaeologists to stop such destruction? When did they write, as a group or as individuals, to journals learned or tabloid to protest at what was happening on this world cultural heritage site? They continued to see only the history of the far distance and not what was under their noses and rumbling past their tombs. While the bulldozers filled many unexcavated and open tombs with debris – such as the large tomb under the Omda House that had been used in earlier times as the village jail – the mission staff were recording the minutiae of life three thousand years ago in a tomb that was on their concession. The archaeologists were tickling away at wall sculptures on a recorded tomb while similar, and maybe far superior ones were cracking off unknown walls and ceilings under the weight and vibrations of diggers and dozers. Maybe it has to do with the narrow training that some of these professionals have had, or the blinkered vision of the establishments for which they work. Perhaps it is fear of upsetting the Egyptian authorities from whom they require permissions and licences. Perhaps it is not wanting to spend valuable time on what they felt was a lost cause. Whatever the reasons – and they are multiple – it has happened.
In recent years there has been a worrying growth of walls springing up everywhere. In the Latin medical terminology of this paper’s title perhaps this could be called parietitis, wallitis in English or hetitis in Arabic. A wall has been built to the north near the cemetery road, the cemetery itself has a relatively new one, there is one around parts of the new settlement, many in Luxor, and another is being built south of the Medinet Habu. A long wall has now been built along the Theban hillside that is a gross visual intrusion - although I did hear a rumour that Dr Leblanc got the height reduced from 2 metres to 1. For the first time in history the Theban plain is now divided, end to end, from the Theban hillside. Yet again the archaeologists appear to be suffering from hypermetropia and do not register this suffocating pollution of the cultural heritage landscape enough to verbalise their opposition. A recent culture has been obliterated to better view the ancient, and now a barrier has been built to distance and alienate the viewer.
Dr Hawass wrote in an article about his new book The Lost Tombs of Thebes, in August 2008: “We have decided to demolish most of the old buildings above the tombs, to remove the sight pollution.” It is too late for us to view and analyse this ‘pollution’ – which was indeed not pollution but a rich and varied culture. What has been polluted is our understanding of what is valuable by concentrating on the marvels of the ancient past.
We have virtually no archaeological evidence for a 7-800 year period; however, only a generation or two ago there was a period in English history known as The Dark Ages. We can now see it was only dark because most historians and archaeologists had focused on the more distant Romans - with their solid stone buildings, town planning and visible and lasting inscriptions. In recent decades, with changes in scholarly theory and practice, more enlightened archaeologists and researchers have shed light on what was dark, and the Dark Ages are no longer dark but a rich, vibrant and multi-facetted Saxon period.
At this very late date, when the hillside is largely stripped of its built and lived culture – is there anything which could and should be done? What is there to rescue and study? Now that the buildings have gone and the people moved off the hillside, the subject of Qurna and the Qurnawi is no longer so politically dangerous to handle.
Perhaps one can ask that a thorough record and study is made of all the post Roman levels that are excavated from now on, and a comprehensive data-base and study of the mud structures that will still exist in the tombs that might be excavated in the future. In most countries this would be part of normal archaeological practice – but here it seems that special guidance needs to be given.
Instead of more DNA studies of dead pharaohs it would be fascinating to do a DNA study of members of the older families in Qurna to see how many, if any, are descendants of the people who lived and worked on the hillside in antiquity.
A selection of slides showing more people in Qurnawi houses, on the hillside, women, Fatima’s magic stones etc.
More importantly – and more important because there is limited time in which to do it – a well funded and professional oral history project should be undertaken with the communities that have moved from the hillside. The relocation of the Nubians in 1963-4, while involving a larger population over a greater area, had many similarities with the relocation of the Qurnawi. We should have learnt lessons from the work of John Kennedy and colleagues which could have informed and encouraged a programme of systematic oral history work before now. There should have been work done while the Qurnawi lived on the hillside, but much could be done even now. As with the Nubians: - to quote Kennedy - “the break with the old life created by the resettlement was drastic and complete. The shift was more than simply a change of place; it also involved a break with the old styles of life.” Not only have the Qurnawi had their special relationship with the monuments and tourists, but they – especially the women – had an intricate spiritual and psychological relationship to the hillside with its spaces, stones and spirits. Only dedicated skilled research work by Arabic speakers, probably women, is going to gain the necessary confidences to obtain cultural gems from these rich mines of memory.
I hope that this proposal gets support from a wide range of professionals and institutions including the archaeologists who can perhaps listen and hear better than they can see. I appeal to any among you who have the interest or the institutional connections to commit resources to further research into the history and lives of the modern Thebans, while the opportunity still exists. I will be happy to meet with you after. Thank you.
Caroline Simpson, June 2010
With thanks to Kees van der Spek and Zoe Simpson
Coordinator - Qurna History Project. www.qurna.org
Secretary, Friends of Qurna Discovery (closed May 2010)
9 Whittington Road, London N22 8YS
020 8881 9386 mobile 07910073787